All Native Voices Matter: A Letter of Concern Regarding COVID and American Indians at the University of Arizona

On August 13, 2021, I wrote the following letter of concern to high level campus administrators at the University of Arizona, namely N. Levi Esquerra (Senior Vice President for Native American Advancement and Tribal Engagement), and Karen Francis-Begay (Assistant Provost for Native American Initiatives). The letter is deeply rooted in who I am as a Hopi person, and as a scholar in the fields of American Indian Studies and Native American history.

From:Gilbert, Matthew Sakiestewa – (sakiestewa)
Sent:Friday, August 13, 2021 4:50 PM
To:Esquerra, Nathan Levi – (levie) <>; Francis-Begay, Karen R – (kfbegay) <>
Subject:All Native voices @ UA matter 

Dear Levi and Karen,

I hope that this email finds you well.

I write to express concern and inquire about whether campus administration is respecting and taking into consideration the differing opinions held by Native people at UA regarding the COVID vaccine and mask mandates.

I am especially concerned that President Robbins and UA officials will require Native people on campus to take the COVID vaccine, which may go against their religious or cultural beliefs, and may go against the counsel of their elders and healers in their communities.

For the past several months, campus administration has approached the COVID situation from a Western scientific perspective, understandably so. However, this approach does not take into account or give room for an appropriate Native response to the vaccine based on an individual’s cultural or spiritual beliefs. Nor does it consider the long and painful history that Native people have endured involving the federal government’s mandatory inoculations, forced sterilizations, and racism and discrimination toward Natives under the guise of “public health.” It goes without saying, then, that many Indian people have not forgotten about this past and still do not trust the federal government, the CDC (a federal government agency), or believe that the government has their best interests in mind.

What then do we say to Native students, faculty, and staff on campus who bring these concerns to our attention? Do we tell them that their past and the opinions of their elders do not matter? Do we tell them that the counsel and practices of their medicine people are backwards and not based on science? Do we tell them that the ancient ways of their people have no place in modern society? Perhaps instead we should simply tell them that the Great White Father in Washington insists that they get the vaccine and mask up, for he knows what is best for them.

Are we as Indian people no longer disturbed by such paternalism? Have we lost the will to push back for fear of being censored or cancelled? It is, after all, the America we now live in. And we would be amiss to think that this form of paternalism does not exist at UA. It certainly does. For example, during the most recent COVID briefing earlier this week, two older white men, medical doctors by profession, occupying the most powerful positions on campus, told each of us: Get vaccinated, mask up, and if it was up to me (President Robbins), I would “mandate” the COVID vaccine for every student, faculty, and staff.

Again, the message to Indian and other people of color is clear: We know what is best for you. Obey us.

But this “one size fits all” approach diminishes and/or ignores the very real cultural and historical differences and concerns among Native people, and other so-called ethnic minorities on campus. And it undermines our agency as people from Indigenous and other marginalized communities.

Not long after Monday’s COVID briefing, President Robbins and UA officials changed the campus policy on masks, mandating that everyone wear a mask indoors if they are not able to also social distance. As you know, some question whether this was legal or enforceable. Time will tell. Regardless, it would be good for President Robbins and other campus officials to take a step back and see the irony in their response, which appears to be this: While we have chosen to disobey state law (if this is indeed true), we nevertheless expect YOU to obey our laws.

Know that while I have concerns regarding President Robbins’ COVID response, I do have the utmost respect for him and acknowledge the tremendous responsibility and challenge he has to lead UA through this situation. We are, indeed, very fortunate at UA to have a medical doctor at the helm, especially now.

Two years ago, I came to UA to build bridges and not tear them down. And I came willing and able to assist campus administration to make UA a better place for Native people. But I am Head of a small department, with no power or real influence on campus. You, however, have the “ear” of the President and Provost. You have a seat at the table. And you have an opportunity here to support and be a voice and advocate for all Native people as we enter a new semester and era of COVID.

Thank you for all the good work you do on behalf of the Indian community at UA. I am honored to call you my colleagues and friends.

All best,


Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert

Professor and Head

Department of American Indian Studies

University of Arizona

Ofc: 520-626-9772

Hopi Runners Presentation, Hosted by Amerind Museum

On Saturday September 12, I gave a presentation on my book Hopi Runners: Crossing the Terrain between Indian and American (University Press of Kansas). The event was hosted by Amerind Museum in Dragoon, Arizona. I have the privilege of serving on Amerind’s Board of Directors. It is a terrific organization that does a lot of good work with and for Native communities in the Southwest. Below is the video of my talk, with 660 people in attendance!

*Interested in purchasing Hopi Runners? Right now, until October 31, 2020, the University Press of Kansas is running a special if you purchase through their website. Use Promotion Code HOPI30 to receive 30% Off plus FREE Shipping!

Beyond the Mesas – A Conversation with Michael Adams (Hopi/Tewa)

Earlier this month I had an opportunity to interview counselor, jeweler, and author Michael Adams (Hopi/Tewa) from the village of Tewa on the Hopi reservation in northeastern Arizona. The interview covers a range of topics, including the role of family in one’s education and career paths, the process of overcoming challenges, schooling beyond the Hopi mesas, and the importance of positive thinking. The interview was conducted on June 10, 2020 via Zoom. To learn more about Michael Adams and his counseling resources and art, please visit: (Next Wave Warrior) (GourdJewels)

Youtube: (Michael Adams)

AIS@UA Alumni Highlight – A Conversation with Michelle Hale

Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, Professor and Head of the Department of American Indian Studies (AIS) at the University of Arizona, interviews former AIS M.A. and Ph.D. student, Michelle Hale (Dine’), now an Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University (ASU). The interview covers a range of topics including teaching experiences at UA and ASU, federal Indian policies, work among tribal nations, and the Navajo Local Governance Act. The interview was conducted on June 9, 2020 via Zoom. 

For more information about the Department of American Indian Studies at UA, visit: WWW.AIS.ARIZONA.EDU

Next Hopi Scientist


From Landmark Stories, University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Dr. Carrie Nuva Joseph grew up in Moenkopi on the Hopi Reservation, seven miles downstream from an inactive uranium mill site. The Hopi villagers living downstream the site use water from the Moenkopi wash for agriculture purposes.

As a young mother, she noticed cancer rates higher than average in the area. To better understand why this was happening, she went back to school to get her doctorate and learn how inactive uranium mill sites, specifically those located close to Native American communities, impact those who live there.

Her research helps assess the knowledge base of Hopi community members concerning the waste site, as well as answering questions about cell covers that are supposed to prevent contamination. It is important for her to bring back her research to her community. As a Hopi woman and an indigenous scientist, she feels very connected to the land and sees the importance of communicating science and informing her community about hazardous waste to protect human health.

There are more than five hundred abandoned uranium mines within the Four Corners Region (where Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico meet). Many are located in tribal communities where human health effects due to environmental contamination are evident. Carrie wants to use environmental science to help prevent further contamination in the area and make sure that information is correctly conveyed to her community and others like it.

This short documentary will be released in 2020 and is made possible in partnership with the The Village of Moencopi (Lower) Administration Office, The Hopi Cultural Preservation Office , and the University of Arizona’s Department of Environmental Science and Tribal Extension Program.

Producer/Photographer/Editor: Sandra Westdahl Drone, Photographer: Cody Sheehy, Sound Recordist/Mix: Galen McCaw, Communications: Caroline Mosley


For more information about Carrie Nuva Joseph, please click here.

AIS@UA Alumni Highlight – A Conversation with Michael Lerma

Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, Professor and Head of the Department of American Indian Studies (AIS) at the University of Arizona, interviews former AIS Ph.D. student, Michael Lerma, now Dean of the School of Business and Social Science at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona.

The interview covers a range of topics including Navajo political philosophies of governance, the role of family and mentors in one’s education and career pursuits, graduate studies in AIS at UA, and Indigenous water rights and COVID-19.

The interview was conducted on May 26, 2020.

For more information about the Department of American Indian Studies at UA, please visit:

Wi-Fi Hotspots for Students on the Navajo and Hopi Nations


Native American students with little or no Internet at home can now access Wi-Fi hotspots on the Navajo and Hopi nations to continue their classes online.Northern Arizona University recently got clearance from Navajo and Hopi leadership to extend Wi-Fi from buildings to parking lots in select locations, allowing students to access online classes from their vehicles while practicing social distancing.

These parking-lot hotspots are open to students from any K12 and college institution and will provide internet access for any mobile device, including laptops and smartphones.

For more information, contact the Office of Native American Initiatives at 928-523-3849, or reach out to Chad Hamill, Vice President of the Office of Native American Initiatives by phone or email at

Wi-Fi parking lot hotspot locations:

>  Chinle
Navajo Tribal Utility Authority Chinle District Office
>  Dilkon
Navajo Tribal Utility Authority District Office

>  Diné College Locations (Request access by emailing the  Office of the President for Diné College
Available locations include:
•  Chinle
•  Crownpoint
•  Shiprock South
•  Tsaile
•  Tuba City
•  Window Rock

> Fort Defiance, AZ (Good Shepherd Mission)

>  Holbrook, AZ (available April 20th, 2020):
•  Holbrook High School
•  Holbrook Junior High School
•  Hulet Elementary
•  Park Elementary
•  Indian Wells Elementary
•  Holbrook District Office

>  Hopi Nation
Kykotsmovi (Peace Academic Center)
Polacca Community Center, Village of Tewa

>  Navajo Technical University with locations at:
Chinle campus
Crownpoint campus

>  Tuba City (Tuba City Chapter House)

>  Window Rock (Library and Museum)

One More for the Hopi

[The following post includes the first few pages of a new book that I am writing entitled Modern Encounters of the Hopi Past]

Introduction – One More for the Hopi

Screen Shot 2019-12-30 at 12.26.26 PM
Emory Sekaquaptewa, Photo courtesy of the Navajo-Hopi Observer

When I was a young scholar, I had the opportunity to speak with Hopi elder Emory Sekaquaptewa, who at the time was professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I had traveled to campus to interview for a faculty position in the Department of American Indian Studies, and he graciously took time out of his busy schedule to visit with me. He inquired about my family, and I shared with him school records that I uncovered about his father at the Sherman Indian Museum in Riverside, California.

He spoke to me as my elder. He was gracious, welcoming, and kind, but he was also very direct. He seemed disappointed that I wanted to return to Arizona so early in my career, explaining positive reasons for our people to spend time away from home. We discussed several topics during our visit. But there was one that proved especially meaningful to me and serves as the intellectual energy behind this book: “I want to write a history book with you that we can use back home,” he said to me, “for our teachers and students.” 

Emory knew the significance for Hopi people to write their own history. And he knew the importance for Hopi scholars to share that knowledge with a wide audience, including those in our village communities. Emory had grown up in the village of Hotevilla Screen Shot 2019-12-30 at 12.17.01 PMon the Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona. His willingness to receive an education beyond the mesas and teach at a university, paved the way for other Hopi academics such as myself. He showed us how to excel at a research institution. And he demonstrated the importance for us to meet scholarly expectations while remaining closely connected to home.

Having navigated the world of our people and that of an American university, Emory was familiar with the academic and cultural terrain that lay before me and other Hopi scholars. He realized that for us to excel in the academy, we needed to publish our work. And he knew that for me to succeed as a Hopi historian, I needed to provide research that was meaningful and useful to my people. 

The co-author of books and numerous articles, Emory also understood the power of the printed word, and of its ability to carry the Hopi voice to a diverse and sometimes unexpected audience. Not long after I started working at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, I taught a class on Native American religious traditions. Among the readings that I assigned to my students was a chapter by Emory entitled “One More Smile for a Hopi Clown.” In it, Emory explains the meaning of clowning in Hopi culture. He describes in great detail skits between the clowns, katsina dancers, and spectators in a village plaza.

Screen Shot 2019-12-30 at 12.20.20 PM
University of Illinois, Photo courtesy of E. Jason Wambsgangs, Chicago Tribune

The drama unfolding in the plaza and on the pages of Emory’s chapter captivated the minds of my students. Emory likely never imagined that forty years after he published the essay, students and a Hopi professor in Illinois would be contemplating his every word. He took us with him to a different world, a world of Hopi ceremony, laughter, and clowning. He forced us to consider the value of lightheartedness and the role of humor and self-awareness. And through story and by his example he taught us to not take life or ourselves too seriously. For as Emory so aptly reminds us, the “heart of the concept of Hopi clowning is that we are all clowns.”

To be continued…